Thursday, November 26, 2009

'Been Thinkin' About the Blues: Blind Willie Johnson

I don't understand the blues. The blues come from a world I don't live in. I've never been discriminated against because of my color; I've never lived in abject poverty; my kids don't cry all the time, and I have never felt in danger of my wife leaving me. These are tremendously common themes in the blues, especially the delta blues from the early 20th century. Singer after singer, from Robert Johnson to Lonnie Johnson belted out heartfelt songs bemoaning their unfaithful lovers (see Lonnie Johnson's song "She's Makin' Whoopee In Hell Tonight" for a good example). Nowadays, these themes have become somewhat of a cliche, but there was a time when these ideas were fresh, untried topics for musical exploration.

When I peruse the Mississippi Delta Blues singers, one bluesman who bucked these thematic trends in particular stands out to me. My first exposure to Blind Willie Johnson was his song "It's Nobody's Fault But Mine," which is a cautionary song/sermon about reading the Bible that's in your house before it's too late. (Technically Willie isn't a Delta singer because he was from Texas, but his music had a strong influence on the Delta bluesmen, and he is often, therefore, grouped in with the Delta bluesmen.) The two things which struck me were his sorrowful, shaky, deep, gravelly voice and his simple yet extraordinarily insightful lyrics:
I have a bible in my home,
I have a bible in my home
If I don't read it my soul be lost

And sister she taught me how to read,
sister she taught me how to read
If I don't read it my soul be lost, nobody's fault but mine

The biggest obstacle to listening to Blind Willie is simply one of linguistics; the man mumbles and roars, he growls and he whispers. He seemingly does everything he can to keep from being clearly heard by doing his best Tom Waits meets late-career Bob Dylan impression. For those who turn up the volume and listen closely, they will be richly rewarded by a dearth of God-glorifying lyrics and tremendous bottleneck guitar playing. Many consider him one of the greatest bottleneck guitarists of all time.

This man recorded only 30 songs between 1927 and 1929, but each and every one was unique and stood on its own as a testament to awesome theology and amazing, world-shaking musicianship. His songs have been covered by the White Stripes, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Dave Matthews, Nick Cave, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and many others. Ry Cooder described Willie's song "Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)" as "The most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music." And yet for all of the acclaim Blind Willie now enjoys, in life things were not so great for Blind Willie. Legend has it, Willie was blinded at a young age when his stepmother threw lye in his face as revenge against Willie's father who beat her when he caught her cheating on him. Subsequently, Willie's father would leave him on street corners, begging for food and money in exchange for his songs.

Not a lot is known about Blind Willie, but what is known is that he was a preacher who operated The House of Prayer in Beaumont, Texas. In addition to preaching on street corners to whoever would listen, Willie would play his music for passersby, and it was in his songs that listeners could find some of the greatest sermons.

One song, in particular, recorded in 1929, is called "God Moves On The Water." In the song, Willie tells of the sailing and sinking of the Titanic in 1912. The continual refrain in the song is, "God moves, God moves, ah, and the people had to run and pray."
A.G. Smith, mighty man, built a boat that he couldn't understand
Named it a name of God in a tin, without a "c", Lord, he pulled it in
God moves, ah, God moves, God moves, ah, and the people had to run and pray

Willie seems to be saying that God caused the sinking of the great ship as judgment on mankind's hubris. But even if he is not saying that the sinking of the Titanic was a form of judgment, he is at least acknowledging that it happened by the will of God. A very haunting and sad song whose theme is betrayed by a furiously upbeat guitar part.

Willie's life ended almost as sadly as it began. In 1945, Willie's house burned to the ground. With no other place to live, he returned to the burned out ruins of his home, sleeping on his wet mattress until he died several weeks later from pneumonia. He was subsequently buried in an unmarked grave.

Willie committed his most deeply held hopes to his recordings. On one song, "Lord, I Just Can't Keep From Cryin' Sometimes," Willie recounts the source of many of his sorrows in life, but then he remembers the one hope he has in Jesus:
My mother, she's in glory, thank God I'm on my way
Father, he's gone too, and sister she could not stay
I'm trusting Him everyday, to bear my burdens away

'Cause I just can't keep from crying sometimes
Well, I just can't keep from crying sometimes
When my heart's full of sorrow and my eyes are filled with tears
Lord, I just can't keep from crying sometimes
Rather than denying the reality or importance of sorrow in the Christian life, Willie acquiesces to the pain, accepting it and then turning it towards the creator, seeking his solace with God since he could find no comfort in this life.
Lord, in my time of dyin', don't want nobody to cry
All I want you to do, is take me when I die
Well, well, well, so I can die easy
Well, well, well, well, well, well, so I can die easy
Jesus goin' make up
Jesus goin' make up
Jesus goin' make my dyin' bed

1 comment:

  1. I had never heard of this blind man who "sees", had reason to sing the blues and also to hope in God. I was unfamiliar with him. but I'd heard his songs covered by others! Thanks for your thoughts and mini-bio..


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